The chance to do exactly as one has always wanted doesn’t always present itself in life, but as I understand it these chances should be taken as often as possible. Which is all to say…I booked a plane ticket to Japan, a place that has always been foreign to me but at the same time so close to my heart. I’ve always adored the food, my cousins will tell you the infamous “tofu” story in which as a two-year-old, I identified the white square spongy thing the twelve-year-olds had picked up out of their Miso soup in disgust. I’ve eaten enough mercury to last a lifetime through delicious fatty tuna sushi and I’ve had my share of noodles, especially at Mishima in Los Angeles.
I’ve always been fascinated with the literature, which I believe may have started with Tales of the Otori, which I read very early on. Then it was James Clavel’s Noble House trilogy perhaps then followed by parts of the Tale of Genji and culminating in a devouring of everything Ryu and Haruki Murakami have written. I haven’t gotten to Mishima, but The Golden Pavilion is next on my list.
When asked what it is about Japan that fascinates me the most, I often say the food…but really it’s more than that. I’ve been drawn to the incredibly precise way of life there, the rich magical and spiritual history (which I think Haruki Murakami captures best), the emphasis on simplistic beauty and of course the food.
Japan was completely closed off to the rest of world until the middle of the nineteenth century, allowing for its culture to develop unhindered (though there are certainly Chinese influences). The ports were closed to foreign trade and cities heavily guarded to outsiders. The punishment for leaving Japan was death. Then, Commodore Perry just shows up one day and busts his way into the place, exposing it to the rest of the world. I’m not sure where I was going with that, but basically Japan’s history is long, rich and uninterrupted…and so are their meals.
I was gone for just under two weeks, ate at least four meals a day and took almost 700 pictures. There’s lots to share, so I hope this will be the first of many posts about what I saw, ate and discovered there.
The single biggest challenge I faced was the language barrier. It was easy to get around, and anyone can point at a map…but to really seek out the treasures on a menu, one has to be able to read it. So, I’m sad to say that I shied away from many places, intimidated by their lack of an English menu (though most places are friendly and accommodating).
I’ll begin with a simple meal that represents sort of what many urban Japanese eat daily for lunch. This is the fare of office workers and shop clerks. Just as you or I might eat a sandwich or a salad, they eat this:
Now I’ll try and avoid making generalizations about Japan because there are so many different cities with different cuisines and different tastes and walks of life, etc. But I will say that the majority of restaurants I saw served set meals on beautiful lacquer trays that consisted of some combination of rice, miso soup, tempura, soba or udon noodles, pickled vegetables and fish. It’s simple and filling and, depending on whether you order friend tempura or not, can be very healthy. It’s delicious and cheap and can be adjusted accordingly to the season (hot or cold noodles/ warm fish stew/smoked cold fish). And the Japanese really are obsessed with the seasons.
This was a simple meal I had on my first day in Tokyo. It poured ALL day…. ruining my plans to go to the imperial gardens, so I ended up window-shopping and museum hopping in Ginza. The neighborhood is notoriously expensive and would not look out of place in the mid sixties, west of Madison Avenue. All major designers have giant flagship stores here and there are fabulous (read: $$$$$) restaurants to feed their clientele. There are however some normal priced subterranean eateries offering great food. This particular one was lovely since a woman in a kimono greeted me immediately and motioned that I should remove my shoes and place them in a locker. They also have these neat lockers for umbrellas! Here I had delicious cold soba, lightly fried tempura and yellowtail sushi. The sushi had shisho leaves inside, which as you might recall from one of my very early posts on sushi….I am a huge fan of.
Feast your eyes on this: fried baby octopus with an egg stuffed inside its head!!!!
Stay tuned for more soon~!